This week, you have a rare opportunity to sample one of the world’s most twisted filmmakers. I’m talking about Ben Wheatley, the crazy prolific and just plain crazy British director whose blood-soaked movies bear little resemblance to one another, from the seizure-inducing 17th-century war film A Field in England to the serial-killer road-trip comedy Sightseers to the slick social satire High-Rise. Those were all confined to the art house, but his latest work Free Fire (also his first film set in America) will open at a multiplex near you, and it’s a good portion of evil fun.
The movie takes place in 1978 in an abandoned Boston factory where Justine (Brie Larson) is brokering an illegal sale of assault rifles from a hot-tempered South African dealer named Vernon (Sharlto Copley) to a bunch of shady Irish guys. Alas, two low-level flunkies on opposite sides happened to get into a bar fight the night before, and when they see each other, everything goes south. In a few minutes, all 10 people at the scene are shot.
And they’ll all be shot again before this is over. The gunfight takes up the entire last hour of this 88-minute film, plenty of time for everybody to reload, tend to their wounds, trade insults and threats, haggle over money, try to flee with the cash or the guns, and fret about the bullet holes in their clothes. This is less thriller than slapstick farce, as characters frequently shoot people on their own side thanks to bullets pinballing off the factory’s concrete and metal structure. Just about everyone is hit in the legs, so they’re all limping or crawling on the floor while they fire back at their enemies. Third parties inject themselves into the chaos before quickly getting killed. Vernon misses a guy standing five feet in front of him, though in fairness, he’s been shot at least four times by that point. One thug stops to lecture Justine on the importance of the arts right before she kills him. Oh, and John Denver songs figure prominently in the score, because one guy has an 8-track. Copley’s one-dimensional clownish menace is well used here, and Larson’s good at playing comically frazzled as people keep dying. But the actor who comes off best is Armie Hammer as Vernon’s sales rep, who takes two bullets early on and then calmly stands behind a van to roll and smoke a cigarette.
Though Wheatley skillfully imitates the grainy look of ’70s movies, this doesn’t have the concision and power of its clear inspiration, Reservoir Dogs. It doesn’t add up to much, either. Then again, it’s not meant to. This quick-and-dirty free-for-all is the cinematic equivalent of a chocolate fudge cake slathered in maple-bacon ice cream. You don’t order it because it’s good for you. You order it because you crave it. Free Fire will satisfy your craving.
Starring Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, and Armie Hammer. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump. Rated R.